The new Netflix film focuses on one of the most important moments of the 20th century – but does it tell the story of what really happened?
By Chris Miller, Writer
The image of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, returning from Germany in 1938 and waving a piece of paper while declaring that war had been averted is a hugely famous one – because we all know he was completely wrong, with unspeakably devastating consequences. Netflix’s Munich: The Edge Of War is set around the events of that doomed peace conference, examining the methods, morals and motivations of some of those involved.
Chamberlain (played in the film by Justice League’s Jeremy Irons) is widely held in contempt thanks to the failure of the Munich negotiations, but this film attempts to penetrate the historical scorn surrounding him and portray him in a different light. It also has a parallel plot that sees a British agent accompanying the PM to Bavaria to find out more about Adolf Hitler’s ominous plans.
So how much of it is rooted in historical fact and how much is fiction? And despite the calamity of his appeasement strategy, does Chamberlain deserve to be re-evaluated on screen more than 80 years later?
Is the movie closely based on real-life events?
Yes and no. Of course there was a real Munich conference, and Neville Chamberlain was a real Prime Minister who declared “peace in our time”. However, the film is based not directly on factual accounts but on Robert Harris’s 2017 historical novel, which set out to cast Chamberlain as a noble statesman who was simply a powerless victim of events. Harris drew on historical sources, but ultimately the book and movie are works of fiction.
The basics are true though: Chamberlain did lead the diplomatic effort to prevent armed conflict, allowing Nazi Germany to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia in return for Hitler’s pledge that this would be the limit of his expansion ambitions. The PM thought this the crowning success of his career, but in six months Hitler’s guarantee was shown to be worthless and in less than a year the continent was at war.
What about the spy storyline?
In the movie, diplomat Hugh Legat (George MacKay, 1917) is recruited by the intelligence service and tasked with visiting Munich to retrieve a secret file detailing Hitler’s blueprint for future military campaigns that would see Germany conquering Europe by force. His contact is Paul von Hartmann (German actor Jannis Niewöhner), with whom he studied at Oxford and who is willing to help the British cause.
As so often with espionage plots, their entanglement soon becomes messy – yes, there’s a woman involved – and other people constantly throw obstacles in their path. This storyline has its roots in the unsuccessful scheme by anti-Nazi Germans to oust Hitler in 1938, although there’s no evidence that the Führer kept all his nefarious war plans in one handy document. (To-do list: invade Czechoslovakia. Tick!)
Are these secret agents real people?
No, but they are based on real people. Hartmann was inspired by a diplomat named Adam von Trott, who worked with the British against Hitler and met Chamberlain (although not in Munich, as the film has it). Like Hartmann, Trott went from being a German nationalist to opposing Hitler, and was involved in the plot to assassinate the Führer in 1944 – fictionalised in the film Valkyrie – for which he was hanged by the Nazis.
Legat is more of a fictional construct but he is partly based on the historian AL Rowse, who was friends with Trott at Oxford. However, Rowse did not spy for Britain (as far as we know – secret agents are pretty secretive, after all) and is unlikely to have fallen out with Trott over a woman, because he was gay. He also wrote numerous books and articles condemning the government’s policy of appeasement.
So should we be nicer about Chamberlain?
Harris certainly thinks so. In an interview, the novelist referred to the former Prime Minister as a “tragic hero”, adding: “He fails, but there’s something noble in the attempt… He believed the country would have a spiritual crisis if the people didn’t see their leaders doing everything possible to avoid another war.”
In his 2019 book Appeasing Hitler Tim Bouverie argues that, as Chamberlain asserted, there was little appetite for war in a Britain still scarred by the Great War, especially since the country may have stood alone. He suggests the key moment in the march towards conflict was not Munich but Britain's failure to respond strongly to Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, before Chamberlain became PM.
Winston Churchill – who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister – is equivocal about his predecessor in his memoir of the time, The Gathering Storm, describing him as competent and forceful but excessively self-confident. Historian Nigel H Jones is far less diplomatic, calling Chamberlain “a vain, vindictive and supremely arrogant man with a sublime – and deluded – belief that he could outwit Hitler”. Robert Crowcroft of the University of Edinburgh argues that the Munich accord was less to do with international statecraft and more about Chamberlain keeping his job in the face of unrest in the Conservative party.
It was the piece of paper he waved that sealed Chamberlain’s reputation: it recorded the “desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again”. That “never” leaves him looking like one of history’s biggest fools.
When is Munich: The Edge Of War on Netflix?
Munich: The Edge Of War is available to stream now in Apps & Games > Netflix.
How to watch Netflix with Virgin TV
If you have a TiVo® box or Virgin TV V6 box, powered by TiVo®:
Press home on your remote
Select Apps & Games
Select All Apps
If you’re already a Netflix subscriber, you can also access the app through Search & Discover or by pressing Red on channel 204. Just sign in with your existing login and start watching. And you’ll only have to log in the first time you use it.
If you’re new to Netflix, then you’ll need to subscribe to use the app. The easiest way to do this is by going to netflix.com/virginmedia. You can also subscribe using the Netflix app in Apps & Games.
TV channels: Channels, content and features available depend on your chosen package. Channel line-ups and content are subject to change at any time and to regional variations.
HD: HD TV set, V HD Box, TiVo box or Virgin TV V6 connected with HDMI cables required for HD channels. Number of inclusive HD channels depends on package.
Netflix: Netflix subscription required at extra cost.